Three days before classes began, 220 new first-year and transfer students boarded buses en route to school and community gardens, food banks and pantries, and outdoor classrooms throughout Buncombe County.
For the 26th year, Warren Wilson College set aside a day specifically focused on the needs of others. Service Day is part of orientation and an introduction to the community engagement curriculum. The 2016 edition focused on food security and education, and students worked at 13 different local agencies that are increasing access to nutritious and sustainably produced food.
“In addition to introducing service, we set the context for why it has to happen and reflect on what it means to larger communities,” said Brooke Millsaps, associate dean of community engagement. “It also introduces students to our local community.”
Nearly 55 percent of new 2016 undergraduates come to Warren Wilson with high school community engagement experience. Emma Noel, an incoming biology major that worked with nonprofits in Washington, D.C., said she appreciates Service Day.
“I feel like I’m fulfilling a purpose here,” said Noel, who was assigned to Loving Food Resources. “I’m not only doing something that helps me and my community, I’m also helping other communities. That makes me feel good.”
According to its website, LFR provides “food, health, and personal care items to people in 18 counties of western North Carolina who are living with HIV or AIDS or who are in home hospice care with any diagnosis.” Service Day presents an opportunity for LFR to complete projects that are not usually possible. Alongside volunteers, a group made up of transfers spent the day cleaning, painting and restocking the pantry.
“Students get to know the community that they are serving,” said Nancy Gavin, LFR executive director. “They know why they’re doing the things they’re doing. It’s not all about ‘me.’ It’s about living in community.”
In a given year, Warren Wilson undergraduates collectively contribute more than 50,000 hours of service to 255 community partners. The effort led to a $420,000 economic impact in Buncombe County for 2014-15. “The 50,000 hours account for everyone doing meaningful work with our partners locally, nationally and internationally,” Millsaps said.
Service Day launched in the middle of a semester in 1990. While not required, student participation was high enough to garner support for an annual event.
Eventually, Verner Early Learning Center opened near campus to ensure “children – regardless of socioeconomic status, race and ability – would be equipped with the basic skills needed for kindergarten and beyond,” according to its website. While it is a separate entity from the College, a partnership has flourished with Service Day continuously bringing the organizations together.
In recent years, the College and Verner collaborated with the North Carolina Outward Bound School and The Roots Foundation on a project called “Verner Experiential Gardens.” The gardens provide Verner with an outdoor classroom where children explore and engage in self-directed learning. It also helps them connect to the source of their food, leading them to healthy eating habits, according to Justin Holt of The Roots Foundation.
On Friday, Warren Wilson students tended to the site, and worked alongside 10 children from Verner. While the effort was invaluable, Chris Tucker, east center manager at Verner Center for Early Learning, acknowledges a greater benefit.
“The relationship between the Warren Wilson students and our students has been incredible and so important,” Tucker said. “Our children remember things that the [Warren Wilson undergraduates] have taught them. And I think the Warren Wilson students are getting a sense of what children are all about. They’re getting some reward to know they’re helping our students have this space.”
In July, the College’s Service Program changed its name to the Center for Community Engagement and joined with the on-campus Work Program, Center for Career Development and advising to create the applied learning division. The move is expected to increase a graduate’s ability to go beyond the classroom and immediately apply what they have learned to experiences in their careers or graduate study.
In addition to the students, Millsaps sees another upside to this transition for the College and its community partners. “Now we can explore what strategic partnerships with outside organizations and communities look like five years in the future and ask, ‘What do we want to accomplish together?’” she said. “We can set our goals and begin to work backward to engage courses, faculty scholarship, athletics teams, work crews and student interns in making those shared goals come to life.”
The applied learning division will seek to provide all students with roadmaps to connect service projects to all other elements of a Warren Wilson College education. It is an approach many undergraduates have mastered in the past, and members of the incoming class already seem to understand the role service plays within the College.
“My mom directs service-learning for an independent school,” said Jacob Huff, a transfer from Nashville, Tennessee. “It’s something I value as part of an education. And what better way to learn? You can learn and serve at the same time. I think that’s a cool way to educate yourself.”
For more information, visit warren-wilson.edu/service.